By Marissa Payne
It started with a text telling me to meet him at a popular intersection in a well known neighborhood. It wasn't long after we exchanged hellos when he asked me to accompany him into a few dark alleys. But before you start thinking your Scoutmob editor moonlights as a call girl, let's set this record straight: your Scoutmob editor is a bad ass who decided to go on patrol with a bike cop for a night. No sooner did we roll off into the dusk when a call came over the radio. "Oh, it's just some naked guy approaching a car, I guess," said the bike cop, who's been on the job for some years now but has no desire to get fired so he shall remain anonymous. (DCPD has a "strange" media policy, apparently.)
We didn't respond to the naked guy alert. It was too far away. "That kind of thing happens pretty often," he said. "Probably PCP." Plus, it was around the same time that another call came in. "Are you ready to punch it?" Bike Cop asked. "Oh, indeed," I replied, channeling my best (which also happens to be the world's worst) Omar from The Wire impression.
Of course, that's about where my bravery and proclaimed bad-assedness ended. Being unarmed, I hung back while Bike Cop and other cops dealt with the just-radioed-in business. Something about a possible knife fight, I was later told.
Although cops get badmouthed a lot in DC (occasionally for good reason), the overwhelming majority are honest, hard-working people, who I think we can all agree deal with some pretty serious issues. The bike cop I was riding with regaled me with several off-the-record stories that made me sure I was not cut out to do this work. The most serious crime he's dealt with was the murder of a child. He talks almost nonchalantly of it now -- akin to the way doctors talk about patient illnesses -- but this kind of work hits humans hard, cop or not.
"Luckily that kind of thing isn't typical," said Bike Cop, who also said the night we were on patrol was atypically quiet. "Things will likely pick up around 10 or 11," he said. I looked at my phone. At only 7 p.m., we had some time to explore the dimly lit shadiness behind some of DC's most grandiose streets before s@#t would apparently get realer.
"Be careful of the glass," said Bike Cop, who rode around the potholes and pits in the these neglected areas of the city with the deftness of an Olympic speed skater. I, on the other hand, on my Dutch-style utility cruiser, looked about as graceful as a drunk walrus playing hopscotch. Which made me ask, "Hey, Bike Cop, what are some tips for back-alley biking? Here's what he said.
"You gotta have a mountain bike."
As mentioned, there are some significant potholes in DC's back alleys. Shock absorbers and a set of good brakes are key.
"Get the strongest tires you can buy."
Also mentioned: the street glass. Luckily not mentioned, as these things were thankfully not encountered: needles and other such sharp and scary things that can slow your roll.
"Have a pair of comfortable, but durable shoes."
Don't be a jackass like me and wear Topsiders. In fact, Bike Cop said that besides sandals, loafers or slip-ons are some of the poorest shoes to wear in back alleys. Instead, you want something that goes a bit above the ankle. "You never know what you might step in..." (He's talking about human poo. For real.)
"Take a light."
Although most bike cops don't want to stick out like well-lit, reflector-clad sore thumbs when approaching a criminal set, it's pretty important to make sure you have a light on hand to avoid having a moment where your tire or high-topped foot might roll through something undesirable. See above.
"Keep moving and pay attention."
In other words, bike cops (and all cops) don't need more business. And although the star-gazing in the poorest lit alleys is hard to beat, should you decide to get off the beaten path, it's probably best to do so during the day. And this goes for alleys in NW, NE, SW and SE. Crime exists everywhere, so keep alert and don't be stupid.
At around 8 p.m., we stopped to grab something to eat. Staying well nourished is essential to bike cops, who clock an average of about 20 miles of biking per 8.5-hour shift. Of course, you never really get a break. In between bites, Bike Cop paused to write a couple of license plate numbers on his hand that came through the radio. "When you're riding, you can't really fumble with a notebook," he said.
About 20 minutes later, we were back on the streets again, except this time we were both riding alone. It was edging on 8:30 p.m., so the calls had started to pick up a bit and Bike Cop had things to do. I was biking home. Although I had an immensely interesting evening, I'd seen enough of DC's back-alley underbelly for one night. So until next time, with better footwear, I'll probably be in a well-lit wifi-equipped coffee shop blogging about how I was once a bad ass for two hours...